BMW Sauber's stand-in made history on his Grand Prix debut. By ADAM COOPER
Not so long ago Sebastian Vettel was given his first Formula 3 test by current Spyker boss Colin Kolles. When the day's running was over, the youngster's mobile rang, and he excitedly gave a quick debrief on how he'd done, what he thought about the car, and so on. A curious Kolles listened with interest, and when the call ended, enquired as to who was on the other end of the line. "Oh," said Sebastian, "that was Michael..."
Yes, it was Michael Schumacher. Busy with a test of his own at Fiorano, the world champion had taken time out to call the teenager and see how he had got on. The connection? In karts Vettel was looked after by a guy who some years earlier had also helped to kickstart Schumacher's own career.
It gives an indication of just how long Vettel has been regarded as a lad on the fast track to the top, thought of highly enough to land contracts with both BMW and Red Bull. The German Lewis Hamilton? Perhaps.
Last year he became more internationally known when he stepped into the BMW third driver role at Monza with the apparent ease of a veteran. And last weekend at Indianapolis he fulfilled all that promise by becoming the youngest points scorer in F1 history, at just 19. Sure, he made a mistake at the first corner, but other than that, he made it all look very easy. And what's more, like Hamilton, he did it with a smile on his face.
What really impressed was the difficult circumstances he faced. Only at 4pm on Thursday did he know that he was definitely replacing Robert Kubica, and he had not undertaken any special preparations. The surprise was that his last full test day was way back on February 27 - and the only running he'd done since then were the Friday sessions in Australia and Malaysia, the latter as long ago as April 6.
"I came here on Monday from Montreal," said Vettel. "Then on Tuesday and Wednesday I jogged round the track to have a closer look, but I do it at every circuit. I was just hanging around, and then suddenly I got the call. I think it was a big bonus to continue training since April."
Just to make matters more complicated, Kubica's Iranian race engineer could not get a US visa, so test team regular Ossi Oikarinen had to step in.
Sebastian didn't have any trouble adapting from Renault World Series mode, immediately setting good times in the course of a mammoth 83-lap programme on Friday. He barely put a foot wrong, with team-mate Nick Heidfeld spending more time off the black stuff.
On Saturday morning he was focused more than his rivals on exploring full qualifying spec, but second place - behind only Fernando Alonso - was a performance that caught the attention. In the afternoon he faced the huge challenge of the triple qualifying sessions, running with and without fuel, and the fuel burn period. He emerged in a creditable seventh.
"I had a target to make it in to Q3, and that's what we did. In Q3 itself we could maybe have been a bit quicker. It's quite different to the normal qualifying I've had so far, and to have three sessions in a row is not easy.
"But I think the team prepared me very well, and I had the opportunity to lie down and relax a couple of minutes before the first qualifying. I had quite a good feeling with the car. As we could see, the car is very competitive here as well, so I was quite confident in the end. I just focused on doing a clean lap each run."
The one big mistake came right at the start of the race, when he sailed across the grass at the first corner. But in so doing he at least averted a possible collision.
"I braked quite late, I was on the edge. Maybe it was too late! But I was trying to pull away from the field and trying to catch the guys at the front, or at least stay there. And then Kovalainen was fighting with a Ferrari. They were all tight - and were quite slow turning into the first corner.
"I arrived quickly so to avoid an incident with Kovalainen I decided to go straight and cut the grass. I thought, 'shit!' I fell behind Rosberg, which destroyed our strategy and our race."
It was Nico's late retirement that ultimately handed him the final point, but that was a decent reward for a good weekend's work. Afterwards, while Sebastian was doing one of many TV interviews, his father handed him a dummy, bib and baby's milk bottle - clearly a sense of humour runs in this family...
"I'm happy to have come away with one point from my first race, which is great for me personally. My target was to finish the race, and we did so. For sure we could have been maybe two places higher if I hadn't messed it up in the first corner!"
Vettel made no attempt to hide the fact that he'd found a full race distance hard work.
"It's a long race, a long time, but it was good fun. It seemed never ending but, in the end, you say 'okay, why is it stopping now?' The last test was quite a long time ago! You try to prepare as well as you can, but you never get as close to the other guys who are always in the rhythm. So that's extremely tough. After Friday I was feeling it a bit on Saturday morning, but it was good to have those two days in preparation for Sunday's race."
And all the testing in the world can't prepare you for the complex reality of a grand prix.
"It's quite a complicated business, I have to say," he said in his always elegant English. "It's really difficult with the tyres. You have three stints, and all the time the car is behaving differently, and all the time you have to get adapted quickly to get on top of the situation, and then just try to get out the maximum. In the end you fight against someone you don't see for a long time, so it's kind of strange.
"The most important thing for me to learn is how the track changes within the qualifying sessions, from one to the other, and then throughout the race.
"Of course, the longer time you have to prepare the better, but in the end we had this short window. It was okay, but it was extremely tough. There was a lot of stuff in my head, so I just had to filter what was important and what wasn't important. It's always difficult to watch the other guys racing. Now I know even better that I would love to join them!"
BMW was more than happy with Vettel's performance, but others in the pitlane were keeping a close eye on him too, and he's done his prospects no harm.
"Sebastian has matured a lot," said Red Bull's Helmut Marko on Friday. "Of course he is fast, but I think his main advantage is his maturity, and how he's overseeing the whole situation. First he has to qualify as near as possible to Heidfeld, and then in the race we'll see how it goes. If he finishes in the points, I would say it's a success."
He delivered just what the doctor ordered...